Some people will advise you that it is not necessary to learn Hindi to live, work and travel in India. They’ll tell you that “everyone” speaks English so you’d be wasting your time. Well, that’ certainly true if you intend to spend your entire time in India visiting tourist sites – which are often wonderful – and staying in hotels. Most of the people that you meet will speak some degree of English.
But, if you want to see India outside of the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort, then I would advise learning a little of the local language. If you’re in the North, that will be Hindi. If you are in central or south India, then it will be the state language (eg. Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu).
If you learn enough to greet people properly, to ask basic questions about what is for sale, to give directions to drivers and to ask for help, then you’ll go a long way to having an amazing experience in a complex country.
I lived in Delhi, so I learnt Hindi. I have learnt at a few different institutions, but nothing beats my experience learning Hindi in Delhi.
Learning Hindi at HindiGuru
First, I learnt at HindiGuru, which is a “Hindi language institute for foreigners”, as they describe themselves. It’s in Malviya Nagar in south Delhi, and its major attraction for me was that it was within walking distance of my home. HindiGuru is cheap and highly flexible in its teaching arrangements. Its major drawback is that it is, like many Indian institutions, a bit chaotic.
Students would come and go, stop and start, arrive and depart, so the teachers would simply repeat lessons for the benefit of the new arrivals. We did very little conversation and seemed to cover the same ground with each batch of new arrivals. Nevertheless, the instructors were amazingly friendly and accommodating, everyone was very flexible about learning and teaching, and overall, it was a low-stress environment.
Learning Hindi at Zabaan
Later, whilst enrolled as a Hindi student at the Australian National University, my whole class opted to do an intense Hindi summer school at Zabaan Language Institute in Kailash Colony, Delhi. It was incredibly intense with face-to-face classes taking up 25 hours per week, and theoretically having five hours of homework per night. It will be no surprise that we never completed all the homework. In fact, we hardly did any homework, as we were exhausted after the daily classes.
Zabaan was more expensive than HindiGuru, but also much more professional. Zabaan had a curriculum and a plan for teaching to meet our needs. Half of the teachers were foreigners themselves, and they taught the more junior students. This worked really well. The other half were native Hindi speakers and they took the more advanced students. There was ample opportunity for one-to-one and group discussion, and we learnt Urdu too. I can’t speak highly enough of Zabaan, but as I say, it comes at a cost. You will pay more, but you will also learn more.
Putting my Hindi to use
I’ve had great experiences speaking – and listening – to Hindi with local people. I was once serving free food to poor people at my local Sikh temple. One of the guests looked up at me and said to her companion in a startled voice the Hindi equivalent of “Look! It’s a white chick!” I just smiled and said in Hindi “Yes, I’m from Australia. Would you like some more rice?” The expression on their faces was priceless.
But it doesn’t always go so well. I was sitting down to breakfast one morning when the cook asked me in Hindi how I wanted my omelette. I wanted it with tomatoes and onions, so I said “Tamatar aur pyaar ke saath”. Unfortunately, that actually means “With tomatoes and love”. The look of bewilderment on the cook’s face told me immediately that I’d made a mistake. Well, it was Valentine’s Day, so surely I could be forgiven!